Father's Day 2018: Alex Gregory's rowing and parenting balancing act

Father's Day 2018: Alex Gregory's rowing and parenting balancing act

17 June 2018 / 07:43

As the nation celebrates Father's Day, we caught up with Alex Gregory - two-time Olympic champion, Arctic explorer and now published author of family activity guide 'Dadventures'.

During his 12-year rowing career, Alex won two Olympic titles as well as five World and two European golds.

He hung up his oar in January 2017, and last August took part in The Polar Row, a pioneering Arctic rowing expedition where he and his crew successfully forged a route across un-rowed Arctic waters.

Want to win one of five signed copies of Alex Gregory's new book? Click here to enter!

The team broke numerous records in the process but when a power failure led to them being marooned for a fortnight on Jan Mayen Island, a place only populated by Norwegian meteorologists, Alex decided to call time on his adventure – his family came first.

Now the 34-year-old has turned his hand to writing a family activity guide for parents looking to make memories outdoors with their children.

The inspiration comes from spending time outside with his own father as a child, while the personal touch continues with Alex’s three children – Jasper, 8, Daisy, 4, and Jesse, 2, contributing to the pictures in the book.

Balancing being a father and life as an elite rower

When I was an athlete, it was just the norm, it was absolutely just the job. We went into that with our eyes open.

When we first had Jasper I knew I would be away for certain times of the year, we wouldn’t have weekends. But we decided to make that decision and not allow my sport to hold us back in our lives

I actually think I was incredibly lucky to be able to have a family while I was competing. It was a good life for us as a family.

When I wasn’t training, I was at home and there was a very definite distinction between work and home life when I was in the country.

And also having the family helped my performances, I’m absolutely sure of it. I’m so sure that mental break between work and life at home helped.

It was an enormous distraction but in a positive way and I just think my performances got better and better as I had more kids basically!

Missing the birth of his daughter…

Daisy was born in 2013 when I was out in South Korea at the World Championships. She was born the night before our men’s eight heat.

I remember being woken up by my phone. I knew it was going to happen on that day.

I ran into the corridor in my pants. Emily’s mum told me I had a baby girl and everything was fine.

I had a little tear, I sent my love, turned the phone off, got back into bed and then raced the next day. It was brilliant and we had a great Championships and won gold.

The hardest thing I found was coming back home. I met her when she was 14 days old, everyone in my family had met her before me.

It was strange. I was so excited to get back, desperate to get back. But she was just this little baby in our house. She didn’t feel like mine.

It took another week before the link arrived and I realised she was actually mine.

And then missing the birth of his second son…

That was unfortunate. I was in South Africa in January 2016 on a training camp.

Jesse was going to be born by C-section so we knew the date, we knew the time and I was going to be back from training camp.

But he started to come early. I said to my coach Jurgen: ‘Emily is about to have a baby, can I just do the ergo a little bit later this evening so I can make a phone call and see if everything is alright?’

He looked at me and said ‘Alex…there is nothing you can do. Maybe it will make you row faster.’

So I had to do the session while Jesse was being born. When he was taking his first breath, I was gasping on a rowing machine in South Africa.

My teammate Phelan Hill took a photo of me basically at the exact time that it was supposed to be happening. I can put that on his wedding photos or something like that.

His eldest son’s reaction to winning Olympic gold at London 2012

Jasper was there in the stands for London, I think he was around three at the time. With all the preparations beforehand, I had not spent much time with him. That was the way it was and we needed to stay focused.

Eventually we finished the race and this was my moment to meet him. He came running up the side of the lake at Eton Dorney shouting ‘Daddy’ and I thought this is the proudest moment you can have as a dad, an Olympic gold medal and handing it to your son.

He came up to me, he took it in his hands, looked at it and said ‘that’s not chocolate,’ and threw it on the floor. It didn’t mean anything to him.

He did not care that I had just won the Olympics. Yes, he was young but it’s relevant to older kids as well. All they want is your time. So it was a big bump back down to earth but in a good way.

A life-changing Arctic row

The trip was wonderful. You saw things that people just don’t see. We were cut off from civilisation, we had no support.

At times it was beautiful and at other times it was horrendously stressful and worrying. We were definitely treading a fine line between life and death.

It wasn’t a typical ocean row across the Atlantic or something like that. There were always three of us out on deck rowing and if we capsized in that water, at least three of us would be dead. There were no two ways about it, it was freezing water. It became very risky.

I went into it thinking I’ve finished sport, I need a new challenge and something to do and I’m going to teach my children that if there’s something you want to do, you just go and do it.

But the reality is they just want you, they want your time.

Risking your life for something that is potentially out of your control like we ended up doing, is not worth it I don’t find anymore.

I’m lucky enough to have three kids. The time they are young is finite, it will disappear and it is disappearing.

We don’t get that time back as parents. My motivation now is to make the most of that time. I want to provide everything that I can provide for my family but also be present for them.

Family life post rowing

Stopping elite rowing has changed our lives basically. Weekends for a start, are still a revelation to us. Being able to spend a Friday night together, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, it’s still the most wonderful thing.

We’re almost two years on and we still try and make the most of those times. That’s very much what the book is about. It’s about spending time together and having a reason to go outside and make memories together.

Not everything has to be perfect. It’s about stepping out that front door and making the effort. If something doesn’t go right, but you’ve been outside and you’re trying, then that’s just as good in my eyes. It’s about spending time together as a family.

Sportsbeat 2018

Alex Gregory's new book, Dadventures, is available to purchase here